By Matthew Schaller
Four weeks into the Russian bombing campaign, Kremlin spin doctors are struggling to create a narrative portraying this intervention into Arab land as warranted and legitimate, similar to how they portrayed the conflict in Eastern Ukraine as a defense of “indigenously Russian lands” against the threat of “neo-Nazis and anti-Semites,” according to Time Magazine.
The conflict in Syria is an entirely different ball game for Russian President Vladimir Putin—he must convince the Russian population to support military intervention in the Middle East. According to Forbes, the Russian population is generally biased against Muslims, and the specter of another disastrous Afghan War looms on the horizon. Add to that the dismal economic situation in the homeland, and Putin faces an uphill battle unlike that which he encountered in Ukraine.
In a foreign policy manifesto published in 2012, the Russian President clearly articulated his disdain for what he is now trying to gain support for. Regarding the United States and its allies, Putin wrote, “I just can’t understand where this militaristic itch comes from.”
He then asks, “Why can’t they find the patience to work out a balanced and collective approach?”
This hypocritical assertion from the Russian strongman, at times shaky and inconsistent, was only recently brought full circle by his September speech at the United Nations.
This speech has been considered by many publications, including Time and Forbes, to be the origin of the Kremlin spin narrative on Syria. The brash and no-nonsense leader criticized the moral decadence of the West and its inability to handle the Islamic State group, the ferocity of the Russian military, Europe’s migrant crisis, and numerous other issues.
However, ever since strike operations began in Syria a month ago, the Russian leader and the Kremlin machine have increasingly shown desperation.One of the ways Moscow justified the Ukraine conflict to the world was the threat of fascism against ethnic Russians in the country. In recent weeks, Putin has utilized the same rhetoric regarding Syria and ordered his puppets in Moscow to drive the issue home. Dmitry Kiselyov, a pro-Putin pundit, recently stated in a weekly telecast, “Russia is saving Europe from enslavement and barbarism for the fourth time. The Mongols, Napoleon Bonaparte, Hitler, and now ISIS.”
A war against fascism isn’t the only justification of the Ukraine conflict that the Kremlin has applied to Syria. An integral part of Moscow’s battle for hearts and minds has been a growing effort to cover up troop fatalities. According to StopFake.org, the Russian government masked the identities of Russian casualties in Ukraine, even going so far as to issue a decree last Maythat declared these deaths state secrets. The same phenomenon is occurring in the Syrian conflict, where reports of troop fatalities in recent weeks have been denied by Moscow.
Every conflict that the Kremlin has a stake in seems to follow a very distinct process: the intervention becomes a shock to the world, they retaliate, and then they save face by ramping up the propaganda machine. However, Syria marks the Russians operating out of their battlespace for the first time since the Afghan War, which puts President Putin in a unique position.
With a growing economic bubble and approval numbers lower than they used to be, the future of Putin’s policy to constantly one-up the West remains to be seen.